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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Composer Pens a Sept. 11 Musical

APSuzanne Carey performing in front of a video screen showing the burning World Trade Center towers during a rehearsal for Sergei Dreznin's musical "Vienna-New York Retour."
VIENNA, Austria -- Sergei Dreznin knows it's risky to debut a musical about Sept. 11 on the anniversary of the attack. It's like presenting such a show about the Holocaust in 1946.

But Dreznin, a Moscow-born composer who lives in Manhattan, says he couldn't resist capturing how the spirit of New York endured after the World Trade Center collapsed. He felt compelled as an artist, he says, "to tell the most important story that could possibly be told."

"Vienna-New York Retour," which premieres Wednesday at Vienna's Metropol Theater, chronicles the events and their aftermath through the eyes of Suzanne, a struggling young singer who lands a dream role on Broadway on the eve of the attack.

Director Jesse Webb, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who now lives in Berlin, said he had to overcome initial misgivings about the piece, which makes its U.S. debut later this year in Washington.

"When Sergei first approached me, I told him, 'You can't do this. You can't write a musical about Sept. 11,'" Webb said.

"Then I realized that a lot of people have never really processed what happened," he said. "It just sat there in their subconscious. We've been careful not to wallow in the sentimental aspect of the attack. We just want to offer a means for dealing with it."

Early on Sept. 11, Suzanne sets out from Queens for her first rehearsal, fretting about being late, when an ominous announcement comes over the subway's public address system: "Service on the L-train to downtown Manhattan will be suspended indefinitely."

Against a backdrop of still photos and video images from the moments before the attack -- investment bankers in wingtips toting attaches, children with bookbags heading to school -- the scene moves to Brooklyn Heights, where dot-com worker Gerald Ackerman is at his desk with a breathtaking view of the towers just across the river.

"A day like every day. Like every other day. A beautiful day," Ackerman muses. Seconds later, his office is engulfed in screams of "Oh, my God!" and "Oh, sweet Jesus!"

To the searing guitar licks of Austrian rock band Slash, the action moves to freelance journalist Amy Hendricks, at street level with a video recorder and overwhelmed by the snippets of chaos and conversation swirling around her.

"Screaming fire engines ... ambulances ... masses of people in the street, just staring ... 'Fire in the World Trade Center!' ... great clouds of smoke ... nobody knows what ... 'Sophie! Sophie!' ... My cellphone ... 'Evacuated -- thank God.'"

The musical ends with Suzanne struggling to come to terms with a post-attack New York she barely recognizes. As video clips show subway commuters wearing gas masks, she tries to comprehend the sudden sea of "United We Stand" T-shirts and a graffito that reads: "Bomb Muslim Businesses."

"When will we learn?" she asks. "Dresden. Belfast. 'Jews Forbidden.' 'Manifest Destiny.' As from a warm bed into a cold night, we leave the life we had."

"New York Retour's" plot is largely autobiographical: Suzanne Carey, a native of Missoula, Montana, who sings the lead, says she was supposed to meet with Dreznin on Sept. 11 when the fateful events began unfolding.

"Of course, I couldn't get there -- the entire subway system was down," said Carey, who now lives in Austria and has starred in numerous productions, including Roman Polanski's "Dance of the Vampires," which premiered in Vienna.

"It was so spooky," she said. "This is a very personal project."

Dreznin admits he's often inspired by the dark side.

His 11 past compositions include "Songs and Satire from Theresienstadt," a death camp cabaret set at the former Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic.

Last year, he released "Romeo & Juliet in Sarajevo," about star-crossed lovers Almira and Bosko, a Muslim girl and a Serb young man who were shot dead in Sarajevo in 1993 while trying to escape the siege of the Bosnian capital.

"I'm drawn to the strength of the human spirit against huge obstacles," said Dreznin, 47, who collaborated with Vienna-based American writer Dennis Kozeluh on "Retour."

"We're used to disasters in Russia. It sounds weird, but I felt at home on Sept. 11. It was the constant fear and uncertainty -- the feeling that everything was out of control. I hope the events, and this musical, will broaden American minds and not narrow them."